Oh Me! Oh School!


This morning my wife and I were at my oldest son’s middle school for a meeting with his teachers.  Nothing deep, just a chance to get to know them and see how he, a 7th-grader, is making the transition from 6th grade and his small elementary school (around 300 students) to the behemoth (approx. 1,300 students) that is one of his district’s three middle schools.

My son was diagnosed with ADHD
homework-anna-gutermuthpretty early on,
just before second grade, and school has usually been a difficult experience for him.  As a middle
school teacher for over two decades, I know how difficult the transition can be for students moving from elementary to middle school.  And the fact that his elementary school teachers in 5th and 6th grade were hell bent on pumping him with homework and letting him know just how much more difficult and hellish middle school was going to be . . . well, that didn’t help.

Turns out he’s doing ok, but I’m still frightened.

I’m frightened because I’ve spent the better part of my 23 years as a teacher trying to figure out why the system does what it does to children, questioning why conformity is such a goal, and wondering why its so hard to get teachers to do things differently, because none of that is what I want for my own children.  In 23 years I don’t understand why pedagogy is so far behind the world in which it exists.

And then one of my students posts this:

Now, my students know we question everything, including the system that supports their teacher.  We read numerous articles about Finland, research from Harvard’s Project Zero, blogs from teachers in other countries, and my classroom has been a laboratory for progressive education for over 20 years.  From The Touchstones Discussion Project, to Design Thinking, to Genius Projects, I’ve endeavored to push the learning in my classroom back to its proper owner, the children in my classroom.

And that video? It just confirms all the things I believe.  And that’s why I’m frightened.

As well, I’m reminded of one of the more famous poetry recitations in the history of American film:  John Keating’s (as played by Robin Williams) recital of select lines of Whitman’s “O Me!  O Life!”  I quote the full poem below:

O Me! O Life!

by Walt Whitman

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

I had started to revise this poem, replacing certain words and lines to make it more of a lament of a teacher about the current system and what it does to students.  But the more I read it, the more it occurred to me that in its present state, the poem serves perfectly well as a critique of a system that confines students to rows, that rarely seeks to discover innate talent and instead seeks to repair deficits, that reduces humanity to data points and pie charts and in doing so deadens curiosity and drives creativity into hiding.

O Me!  O School!

And yet, in that final stanza…the “answer.”  There is such hope.

Such hope as to remind me of people like Kevin Jarrett, whose students are learning to change the world through design.  People like Aaron Eden and his Eliad group, empowering students to pursue social entrepreneurship.  And people like Dave Burgess, whose swashbuckling ways have sparked a revolution in so many classrooms.

Such hope as to allay my fears and empower my son, my students, and my self, to exert our powerful, colorful, interesting selves upon the world; to take charge of our learning; to educate ourselves rather than waiting for it to happen to us; and perhaps, to change the world.


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